Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – May 26, 2014

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Ra’Shede Hageman

Last week, I discussed some of the reasons why I liked the Atlanta Falcons’ selection of Jake Matthews with their top pick in the 2014 NFL draft. This week, I believe it’s only fair if I talk a little more in-depth about the next Falcons selection, defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman.

I consider “defensive lineman” to be Hageman’s position because I’m not sure exactly how the Falcons will use him. And that is what gives me some of the trepidation about his ability to immediately translate as an impact player in Atlanta.

If my scouting report on Hageman wasn’t clear, it’s not that I doubt his impact potential. Hageman could be one of the more dominant defensive linemen in the NFL if he fully reaches that potential. But I think that belief also creates problems for him in the form of  lofty expectations.

I remember back in 2007 when expectations followed Jamaal Anderson to Atlanta. And yes, I apologizing for invoking that very painful memory for you.

Personally I had not seen Anderson play at Arkansas, because the period between 2005 and 2007 were years that I had cut back on watching college football due to focusing on and handling team needs and free agency for the draft website, The Huddle Report.

But after watching one of those ESPN’s SportsCenter the week of the draft and seeing the Atlanta Journal-Constution’s Terrence Moore say that the Falcons the Falcons were going to select Anderson with the eighth overall pick, my reaction was, “Who?”

That offseason, most of what I had been hearing were three names for the Falcons with the eighth overall selection: running back Adrian Peterson, safety LaRon Landry and defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. My heart was set on Peterson, but felt Landry was a worthwhile consolation prize.

I never really gave Anderson much thought before Moore’s proclamation. I knew the Falcons needed another pass-rusher to team with John Abraham due to the departure of long-time leader Patrick Kerney that offseason. But I guess I figured that we could target an end in a later round where pass-rushers like LaMarr Woodley and Charles Johnson could be found rather than using it on our top pick for someone that throughout the process I hadn’t been hearing a ton about.

But we got Anderson and I can still recall all the message boards and online, post-draft stories touting Anderson’s potential to be a double-digit sack artist with comparable skillset to Mario Williams. And despite knowing little about Anderson, I bought into the hype.

But I decided to start watching college football again that fall, so that I could never be blindsided by a pick again. Because despite the post-draft, summer hype, what occurred with Anderson during the fall was tough to stomach.

It was like his pass-rush ability never existed. He was just so slow and so poor at fighting off blocks.

Again, I did not see Anderson play at Arkansas. I can only really guess to what he looked like, but I see similar red flags with Hageman.

Comparison of Hageman and Anderson Not Meant As Knock

Does that mean that I think Hageman will be a bust? No.

It means that I think expectations for his ability to help out the Falcons defense, particularly their pass rush, this particular season may be a bit too high.


Jamaal Anderson struggled in Atlanta

It’s not the same thing as saying he’s a bust. If I was saying that, I would be suggesting that at no point in the future he’ll ever develop.

I have no clue what the future holds, no one does. I can make an educated guess based off recent history. And frankly, Anderson was recent enough that I couldn’t help but recall him when I see a talented, but inconsistent player like Hageman during his final season at Minnesota.

I think Hageman can develop, if he’s used properly. And I think that starts him playing on the outside as it seemed to be the only spot on the field where there was any real consistency to his game. He was able to bully college tackles with his superior strength and power when he lined up on the outside in a five-technique and be given more space to use his superior power and length.

It’s one of the reasons why I feel a bit more comfortable comparing Hageman to Red Bryant rather than interior defender like John Henderson. Henderson made his home playing inside at defensive tackle and wreaking havoc on opposing pockets and backfields. But he was doing that during his SEC days at Tennessee on a fairly consistent basis so that when you popped in any Vols game, it wasn’t long before his ability stood out to you.

Hageman’s Physical Tools Are Help and Potential Hindrance

Not the case with Hageman, and the reason I believe that happened because Hageman doesn’t fit as an interior player. He’s just too big and long and his poor hand use and technique prevent him from getting leverage against shorter guards. What I didn’t see from Hageman to any competent level was using his hands and arms to shield guards from getting into his body. Once a defender put his hands on him, Hageman seemingly didn’t know how to disengage.

Think of it as the same problem that plagued Garrett Reynolds on the offensive line, but in reverse. Reynolds could get knocked back into Ryan because his height meant his center of gravity was too high, and a quick and powerful shorter defensive tackle could use that to his advantage.

NFL teams look for long players when it comes to playing on the edges of both offense and defense, but inside is where a short guy can shine as we see constantly with smaller running backs like Warrick Dunn and Barry Sanders, “undersized” defensive tackles like Geno Atkins and John Randle and middle linebackers like Zach Thomas, London Fletcher and Jessie Tuggle.

If the Falcons play Hageman inside, I think it’s going to be to his detriment, thus why I’m reluctant to consider him a true defensive tackle.

In all likelihood, he’ll be expected to play the same role that Peria Jerry played in 2013, which was basically as a five-technique defensive end.

Jerry did not perform that role well because he lacks the strength and range you prefer in a strong-side defender that needs to be able to set the edge and pursue laterally. Hageman is better in that regard, but not by a huge degree.

And it’s one the reasons I believe his motor was questioned at times. He didn’t move a lot, and so people suspected that was by choice.

Does that sound familiar? A guy that is supposed to be a premier athlete but can’t move. You might think I’m describing Jamaal Anderson right now.

Hageman Won’t Be Asked to Fill Big Shoes


John Abraham’s absence hangs like a shadow above Osi Umenyiora

But again, I’m not calling Hageman a potential bust. Anderson was a top 10 selection. You can’t miss on those picks. While the new Collective Bargaining Agreement may decrease the financial ramifications, there are still personnel ramifications for missing on any first-round pick, let alone one taken in the first 10 picks. It stems from the domino effect that can plague a team for several years after a mistake.

Hageman is a second-round pick and expectations shouldn’t be too wild that he’s going to have some double-digit sack season like Anderson was supposed to as a rookie. Unlike Anderson attempted after Kerney, Hageman won’t be looking to fill the shoes of a long-time stalwart at his position. The team retained Jonathan Babineaux, so it pushes that possible resentment to the wayside.

That same resentment now follows defensive end Osi Umenyiora like a foul stench because he had to come in behind “the Predator” John Abraham.

So Hageman won’t have that against him. And unlike Anderson, Hageman won’t be handed a starting job right off the bat and be expected to produce.

The Falcons have players like Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai pegged for being the immediate producers up front. They’ll get help from perennially underappreciated Babineaux, a possibly healthy Corey Peters and a developing Malliciah Goodman, who are all also ahead of Hageman at this point.

Right now, Hageman is only going to be asked to be a rotational player, which should also help dampen expectations. Anderson played a ton early on and thus it was a constant reminder snap after snap that he wasn’t getting the job done.

That won’t be the case with Hageman. I don’t expect Hageman’s role to be any bigger than Goodman’s from last year. In the first few games of 2013, Goodman hardly played. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, Goodman saw five snaps in the seasn opener against the New Orleans Saints last September. The following week, once the Falcons had built up a lead in a win over the St. Louis Rams, he saw his snap count go up to 25. But then he had just a combined 23 over the next three games before emerging in Week 7 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the bye week thanks in part to the team’s increased efforts to get younger players more playing time.

Hageman will be given a comparable amount of time to grow into his role, which down the road could be significant.

Debate Looms on Best Method of Developing Young Players

I often feel that the whole idea of playing a guy as the only way to develop him is overrated. Especially when said guy is not ready.

I don’t believe Hageman is quite ready. And if I’m wrong and he is, then it’s not going to stop the team from playing him. If a player is good, coaches will find a way to put him on the field. And that’s the main reason why I think a young player doesn’t have to play a lot in order to get better.

Sure, he needs to play some just so you can evaluate whether he’s good or not. But you can evaluate five snaps if need be. If a guy has “it,” then it will show on film even when given a very small sample size. At least that is what I believe. Not to mention, the coaches are there every day in practice. They see how hard a guy works and how effective he is against his own teams’ starters. If a guy is struggling against Lamar Holmes in practice, it’s probably going to mean he will struggle against Andre Smith and Bryan Bulaga in actual games. If he’s making Holmes look silly, then it stands to reason that he deserves the opportunity to make Smith and Bulaga look the same.

Last summer, we saw something similar happen with cornerback Robert Alford. There was no question that it was Desmond Trufant that was supposed to win the starting right cornerback job. But the team gave Alford and Robert McClain enough to reps to suggest that it was an open competition early on. And Alford took advantage of those opportunities.

And ultimately that is exactly what developing is, an individual player seizing his opportunity. It may only come once and if the guy latches on, he’ll go onto have success. If he doesn’t, then he may wallow in the muck for the rest of his career.

Quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Kurt Warner are perfect models of this phenomenon, where an unexpected injury to the starter led to their respective teams going on a Super Bowl run. This is why Colin Kaepernick was hyped so extensively last year, since he had the same made-for-Hollywood emergence as Brady and Warner.

Hageman’s Efforts Regardless of Results Deserve Respect

Hageman could have the same. It should be no secret by now that Hageman did not have the easiest upbringing. It’s why despite my concerns about his future in Atlanta, I will definitely be rooting for him.

No different than 16 months ago when I was rooting for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game despite knowing it would be very tough to win.

Knowing an obstacle will be difficult just makes it that more satisfying when you finally accomplish overcoming that obstacle.

And by the Falcons employing Hageman as a defensive lineman might just help him do what Anderson could not do, overcome early adversity and become a good football player.

Particularly during training camp and preseason Hageman should be used both inside at tackle and outside at end, as they explore how effective he can be at one or both positions. If he does what I expect, he’ll create havoc more at end when he’s facing tackles like Zach Strief and Jordan Mills this season, rather than when he’s facing guards like Jahri Evans and Kyle Long as a defensive tackle.

But perhaps I’m wrong and he does the opposite or even both, dominating regardless of where he is on the field. We won’t know if we just plug him in as starter and try to make him into something he wasn’t, as we did with Anderson in trying to turn him into an edge-rusher. Part of Anderson’s struggles came because he was more of a 3-4 end in style than the 4-3 end we wanted him to be. He was essentially miscast in Atlanta and never lived up to his full potential.

Ultimately, comparing Hageman and Anderson is about where both started out, not necessarily where either will or did finish. Both are former high school basketball stars that shined at tight end and ultimately made the move to the defensive side of the ball in college.

But Hageman has power and strength, abilities that prove more useful even if you don’t have the desired technique to back it. Anderson was playing a position within a scheme where quickness was key, while Hageman will not. That gives him an edge when it comes to his ultimate development. Hageman’s success will hinge somewhat on his ability to bully opposing linemen with his strength, something that should translate very easily to the NFL.

Hageman might just wind up being a dominant run defender, similar to Bryant and Henderson. After all, the five-technique position is one where defending the run is the key. There just aren’t that many 3-4 defensive ends known for their pass-rushing prowess.

That’s not a bad thing, especially when you could put the necessary edge-rushers around him that offset any deficiency as the Seattle Seahawks have done with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett supplanting Bryant on most passing downs.

But whether the Falcons have appropriately addressed their need for an edge-rsuher is a topic I will save for another week.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
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